We can’t talk about what we’re doing, so we’re talking about the people doing the work. If you’ve ever been to a show where we were demoing our games, you’ve probably talked to Geoffrey, our Lead Designer for State of Decay. Check out the story of how he came to be here. — Sanya
Not Quite Screwing Everything Up: How I Became a Game Designer
by Geoffrey Card
Chapter One: Natural Disasters
My first foray into game design was when I was seven years old, and I realized that all it took to make a board game was a pen and paper and a die. I used to draw out weird little games that were a cross between Life and Candyland, and they were terrible. It only took one playtest to make it obvious that they weren’t any good, and I had no idea what to do to fix them. So I stopped, and played with Legos instead.
Legos, though. Those were amazing. My sister and I used to play together, though we had very different interests. She used them (at the age of five) to tell personal stories of loss and heartbreak, while I mostly wanted to build sci-fi military bases, and have them fight to the last man against ruthless invaders who left a trail of sword-impaled Lego corpses in their wake.
We eventually compromised with natural disasters like floods and tornadoes, which satisfied my need for destruction, as well as her insatiable desire to care for sad refugees.
But this pattern of using our toys to tell our own stories persisted through a range of different interests. I used to watch Transformers and G. I. Joe on TV, but for the life of me, I couldn’t retain any of those scripted plotlines. I was much more interested in the persistent characters and stories I was creating myself, over the course of years, with my Legos, my stuffed animals, and my (naturally sentient) Hot Wheels cars.
Chapter Two: Child Labor
I’ve played video games for as long as I could remember. My dad was a game critic in the eighties, and so video games showed up randomly at our house by the truckload. My dad didn’t have time to play them all, so he subcontracted that work out to me. My job was to play every game that entered the house, evaluate them, come up with themed lists of games to demo for him, and then give him the raw material to write his articles with.
I couldn’t write like he could, but it was a transformative experience for me to play all those games, not just for fun (though many of them were), but to root out what could be said about them on an analytical level.
Chapter Three: Work and Play
Unfortunately, I never had the patience or temperament to learn to program (see: me quitting making board games as soon as it became hard). And as far as I knew at the time, that was the only way to get involved in video games. So when I graduated high school, I went on to film school, and started training to become a director and screenwriter.
But I noticed a difference between me and some of the other folks in the film department. You could sort of tell who was going to make it — the ones who imagined themselves making a movie, and then just went out and did it. The ones who didn’t need a class project to get them moving. The ones who would take a minor video assignment and turn it into a full-scale production, because they could, and because they loved it. They devoted every waking minute to their art, because it was both work and play for them.
Meanwhile, I would just go home and stay up all night playing video games.
Chapter Four: Fallout Means Consequences
I played a couple of the most influential games of my life during this period. The original two Fallout games did something that felt revolutionary to me — letting me make an extremely arbitrary character, sending me out into the deadly wasteland, and then giving me the agency to decide how I would affect the world, for good or evil.
The first time I won, and saw the final montage of the effects my choices had on future history, I was completely hooked. I made character after character, trying different strategies, and coming up with different motivations. “This woman hates mutants.” “This guy is socially anxious, and avoids speaking to anyone.”
I was telling my own stories again, just like I did with my Legos — only this time, I had a world that was created by someone else, which would push back against me in surprising ways, and provide me with feedback for my decisions. Once, I accepted a mission to assassinate someone at an orphanage (because I was “being evil” at the time), and when I did, a room full of children assaulted at me, and I had to mow them down. That playthrough stopped right then — I couldn’t continue because the story I was telling was too ugly. And I learned something about myself.
It was Deus Ex that clinched it for me. On my third playthrough [spoilers — seriously, you should play this game if you haven’t already], on a lark, I decided to stand my ground during the scene where the men in black are coming for my brother, and he is ordering me to flee. I assumed that the developers were using my brother’s voice to tell me what I had to do, so I didn’t expect to be able to survive. I saved my game, and prepared to meet my doom.
But with the right placement of mines and some luck, I actually did survive. And my brother lived. Later, in the scene where I was supposed to find his body, there was someone else on the gurney. And his voice was now in my ear, over the radio, influencing my moral decisions, throughout the rest of a story that I thought I had already played to death, twice before.
A choice that I made had a ripple effect in this world. This was my story now, to a degree that it had never been before. There was something profound about that, and I wanted more of it. I wanted to be a part of making more of it.
Chapter Five: Numbered Chapters are Pretentious
When I was twenty-four, my dad asked me to represent him at a meeting with Amaze Entertainment, a video game developer in the Seattle area that was courting him for some work. I ended up spending two days with them, telling them exactly how I would design the game they wanted to make.
Back then, the game industry was the wild west. There weren’t any college programs, or other “official” ways to get into the game industry. Owners of game companies had to be on the lookout for potential entry-level hires in all kinds of random places, and in this case, they decided to offer an entry-level position to me.
This blew my mind. I looked at all the time and effort I was putting into being a filmmaker, and suddenly, I did not give a crap about any of it. Making games was what I wanted to do; it was obvious. And now I had a problem.
Chapter Six: Impostor Syndrome
I mean, I said yes to the job, obviously. That wasn’t ever in question.
What worried me was that story I told at the very beginning: I quit making board games as soon as it became hard. Making video games was my dream job, and now it was about to become hard. And I had never seen myself actually accomplish something difficult, ever in my life.
I was the sort of kid who coasted through school, did whatever caught his eye, but never got really devoted to any of it. That helped me on one level, because it meant I played a lot of video games. But it also meant I was lazy. A procrastinator. The kind of kid who cleaned his room once a year, when it finally got bad enough that it was an adventure instead of a chore. The kind who lost a scholarship because he was in a bad mood on finals week. The kind of kid you never want to give any serious responsibility to.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had this unbelievable opportunity that I was going to screw up. You’ve heard of impostor syndrome? Holy crap, did I have impostor syndrome. I knew I didn’t deserve that job, and I knew that if anyone found out how lazy and procrastinating I really was, they would fire me immediately.
So I spent years pretending to be a really hard worker. It’s not a hard act to pull off — you just have to do an awful lot of work. I practically lived at the office, pouring everything I had into the games I was assigned to work on. At one point, I actually won a minor prize in an M&M’s sweepstakes because I was living entirely off the candy and ramen on the studio’s snack table.
I was made a lead designer fairly early in my career — and not because I was ready for it at all. It was more of a battlefield promotion in the midst of attrition. But I managed to hold onto it, partly through sheer luck — each of my own disasters was dwarfed by a larger disaster elsewhere in the company that made me seem tolerable by comparison.
Chapter Seven: The Back Burner
What we did was mostly licensed work — low-budget games based on kids’ movies, and handheld spinoffs of other people’s franchises. But I genuinely did not mind. I mean, sure, I had ambitions of someday doing more original work, but in the meantime, holy crap, I was making video games for my job. That seriously never gets old for me.
In 2011, I thought I was about to get my shot at doing something new. The industry was changing, the licensed work was running dry, and so Amaze’s parent company sold it off to up-and-coming mobile giant Glu.
We spent the first few months at Glu pitching all our crazy original ideas, including this one I’d been nurturing for a while — a game about a community of survivors during a zombie apocalypse that was much more about the characters and the dynamic storytelling than it was about the danger and the violence.
In the end, I was assigned to other projects, and those original ideas went onto a back burner that was so far back, it was pretty much the fridge.
Then I went to PAX 2012, and stumbled into this tiny booth on the edge of Microsoft territory, where this studio I’d never heard of called Undead Labs was demoing the exact game I wanted to make. I started talking to them excitedly about the potential of their State of Decay franchise, and over the course of the next year, we had lunch several times, exchanged e-mails, and really got to know each other.
Finally, when I had just parted ways with Glu (after eleven years at the same office), I got a call from Richard Foge, the design director at Undead Labs. State of Decay was shipping, and they had an opening for a designer to handle the expansions. He thought I should apply, and if I was a good fit for the team and the job, then I’d be in.
So that’s how I finally got the chance to do the work I’d been preparing for since I was seven years old. The State of Decay franchise is poised to break new ground in the realm of video game storytelling, and through a series of incredibly improbable events, I’m actually a part of it, contributing the ideas and experiences that I’ve collected over the past thirty years to the ones that were already here, and the ones that came in after me.
Chapter Eight: –30–
There is one subplot here, though, that I skipped. When I landed my first job in the game industry, and suddenly went from procrastinating aspiring screenwriter to job-having career guy, one of the first things I did was propose to my girlfriend. Now we’re married with four children, and my second daughter is the same age that I was when I started this whole journey thirty years ago.
When Moonrise was canceled, her first response was, “But we worked so hard on it!” As an early access player, she felt like she was part of the team. She would make suggestions all the time, and once even got a weapon idea into State of Decay. (If you like the pirate cutlass, you have her to thank for it!)
I like to imagine that my job is giving her the same kind of opportunity that my dad’s job gave to me — a chance to see games not just as an idle pastime, but as an important art form that adults think deeply about, and devote their careers to.
She doesn’t actually have to be a game designer, of course. Right now, she says she’s planning to be a farmer, so she can pet animals every day. But when I remember the transformations that I went through playing Fallout and Deus Ex, I’m thrilled by the idea that the work we do here might one day affect some other young mind, and through them, continue pushing out the boundaries of what video games are capable of.